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2. What are the five tastes of herbs? What are their clinical applications?

The five tastes of herbs are pungent, sour, bitter, salty and sweet. Each herb has at least one taste and most have two or three. Some herbs have no specific taste, and so are considered bland herbs. There are also herbs which have a special aromatic smell; these are called aromatic herbs. Another exception is that there are also some herbs or substances which give an astringent sensation in the mouth, so these are called astringent substances.

Originally, the tastes of herbs were defined directly from the perception in the mouth and stomach. People found that Gan Jiang (Zingberis rhizoma) is pungent, Gan Cao (Glycyrrhizae radix is sweet, Huang Lian (Coptidis rhizoma) is bitter, Wu Mei (Mume fructus) is sour, Zhi Mu (Anemarrhenae rhizoma) is salty, Fu Ling (Poria) is bland and

Long Gu (Mastodi fossilium ossis) is astringent. In early medical practice, it was also found that a specific taste caused a specific reaction in the body; as medical experience increased, the study of the tastes of herbs changed. As a result, some tastes are ascribed to herbs not according to their perception in the mouth, but to their action in the body. Therefore, the five tastes of herbs no longer simply describe the taste properties of herbs but have also become a part of the theory of herbal medicine and are used to analyze and study herbs.

According to experience from medical Chinese practice, each taste possesses specific properties, which can bring about specific actions in the body. The basic actions from the tastes are as follows: (We start by Pungency).

 2.1 Pungency

A pungent herb has moving and dispersing characteristics, which are able to disperse Wind, Cold, Heat and Dampness and therefore treat corresponding disorders. For instance, Ma Huang (Ephedrae herba) can disperse the Lung-Qi, Shi Gao (Gypsum) is able to disperse Heat from the Lung and the Stomach, Fu Zi (Aconiti radix lateralis preparata) can expel Cold from the Kidney, Fang Feng (Saposhnikoviae radix) is able to expel Wind from the superficial region of the body and Chai Hu (Bupleuri radix) can lift the Qi from the Liver and Gall Bladder.

Since pungent herbs can move quickly and expel pathogenic factors, they can also promote Qi movement, Blood circulation and water metabolism, open the meridians and reduce stagnation. For instance, Mu Xiang (Aucklandiae radix), Chen Pi (Citri reticulatae pericarpium), Sha Ren (Amomi xanthioidis fructus) and Hou Po (Magnoliae cortex) can promote Qi movement; Chuan Xiong (Chuanxiong rhizoma), Dang Gui (Angelicae sinensis radix), Chi Shao Yao (Paeoniae radix rubra) and Yan Hu Suo (Corydalidis rhizoma) are able to invigorate the Blood; Di Fu Zi (Kochiae fructus) and Qin Jiao (Gentianae macrophyllae radix) can eliminate Dampness; Jiang Can (Bombyx batrycatus) and Quan Xie (Scorpio) can open the meridians.

The moving and dispersing ability of the pungent taste can also break up and eliminate pathological products. Many herbs that are able to break up congealed Blood, reduce food stagnation and dissolve Phlegm are also pungent, such as Mo Yao (Myrrhae), E Zhu (Curcumae rhizoma), Lai Fu Zi (Raphani semen), Bing Lang (Arecae semen), Ban Xia (Pinelliae rhizoma) and Xing Ren (Armeniacae semen).

2.2 Sweetness

 A sweet herb possesses tonifying qualities. It can tonify and nourish the body, and especially its substantial aspect. Most of the herbs that tonify the Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang are sweet. For example, Ren Shen (Ginseng radix) and Huang Qi (Astragali radix) can tonify the Qi; Shu Di Huang (Rehmanniae radix praeparata) and Da Zao (Jujubae fructus) can tonify the Blood; Mai Men Dong (Ophiopogonis radix) can nourish the Yin; Ba Ji Tian (Morindae radix) and Rou Gui (Cinnamomi cassiae cortex) can tonify the Yang. A sweet herb also possesses moderate quality. It can relieve acute stomach ache, abdominal pain or cramping pain of muscles, because sweetness can the Yin of tendons and therefore relaxes the muscles; Zhi Gan Cao (Glycyrrhizae radix preparata) is a good example in such situations.

The moderate quality gives the sweet taste an ability to reduce stress, harmonize emotions and bring a relief from deep anger, fear or sorrow. Zhi Gan Cao (Glycyrrhizae radix preparata), Xiang Fu (Cyperi rhizoma), Bai He (Lilii bulbus) and Sheng Di Huang (Rehmanniae radix) are often used for this purpose.

Moreover, sweetness can also reduce the speed of a progressive pathological change, stabilize the condition and give time to restore the body resistance and to recover the function of the internal organs; therefore it can be used in critical situations.

For instance, Ren Shen (Ginseng radix) and Huang Qi (Astragali radix) can restore the Qi; Zhi Gan Cao (Glycyrrhizae radix preparata) and Fu Zi (Aconiti radix lateralis preparata) used together can rescue the Yang; Zhi Gan Cao (Glycyrrhizae radix preparata) and Bai Shao Yao (Paeoniae radix lactiflora) are used together to nourish the Yin.

The moderating nature of the sweet taste can also reduce the side-effects of harsh herbs and moderate the speed of other herbs, turning a harsh and quick action into a steady and constant action. For example, Zhi Gan Cao (Glycyrrhizae radix preparata) can moderate the cathartic action of Da Huang (Rhei rhizoma) and Mang Xiao (Natrii sulfas) to treat constipation; it can moderate the quick action of Fu Zi (Aconiti radix lateralis preparata) and Gan Jiang (Zingiberis rhizoma) to strengthen the Yang. In addition, a sweet herb is often used to harmonize the herbs whose functions are on different directions and levels in one formula; for example, Zhi Gan Cao (Glycyrrhizae radix preparata) is used in more than ninety percent of formulas as a harmonizing herb.

2.3 Sourness

A sour herb is astringent. It can stabilize the Qi, Blood, Essence and Body Fluids and prevent their leakage in pathological situations. Because it can stabilize the essential substances of the body, it is also considered to have a nourishing function in the body. For example, Wu Wei Zi (Schisandrae fructus), Shan Zhu Yu (Corni fructus) and Bai Shao Yao (Paeoniae radix lactiflora) can stabilize the Body Fluids and treat spontaneous sweating and night sweating; Wu Wei Zi (Schisandrae fructus) and Wu Bei Zi (Chinensis galla) are able to stabilize the Lung-Qi to treat severe cough and shortness of breath; Suan Zao Ren (Ziziphi spinosae semen) can stabilize the Heart-Qi, nourish the Blood and treat palpitations, restlessness and insomnia; Bai Shao Yao (Paeoniae radix lactiflora) is able to nourish and stabilize the Liver-Yin to treat irritability; Shan Zhu Yu (Corni fructus) can stabilize the essence of the Kidney and treat poor memory, inability to concentrate and spermatorrhea; Wu Mei (Mume fructus) can nourish the Stomach-Yin and improve the appetite; Jin Ying Zi (Rosae laevigatae fructus) and Wu Bei Zi (Chinensis galla) are able to bind up the intestines and stop diarrhea as well as treat rectal prolapse. Sour herbs are also considered to have a function of relieving toxicity and reducing swelling. For instance, Wu Mei (Mume fructus) and vinegar are used to inhibit some parasites, fungi, bacteria and viruses.

2.4 Bitterness

 A bitter herb possesses drying, reducing and downward-moving capabilities. It can dry Dampness and dissolve Phlegm. For instance, Bai Zhu (Atractylodis macrocephalae rhizoma) can dry Dampness in the Middle Jiao and strengthen the function of the Spleen; Cang Zhu (Atractylodis rhizoma) can dry Dampness and relieve heavy sensations in the head and the limbs; Ban Xia (Pinelliae rhizoma) and Xing Ren (Armeniacae semen) can direct the Lung-Qi to descend, dissolve Phlegm and relieve cough. Bitterness is very often used to reduce Heat from the internal organs. For instance, Huang Lian (Coptidis rhizoma) can clear Stomach-Fire and treat Excessive hunger, heartburn and toothache; Zhu Ye (Bambusae folium) can clear Heat from the Heart and lead it out of the body through the urine; Long Dan Cao (Gentianae radix) can clear Heat, reduce Fire and dry Dampness from the Liver organ and meridian, and is effective in treating tinnitus, acute eczema and infections of the eyes and ears; Huang Bai (Phellodendri cortex) can clear Heat from the Kidney and Bladder and therefore treats spermatorrhea and painful urinary dysfunction due to Damp-Heat in the Lower Jiao.A bitter herb has a downward-moving tendency in its action, and therefore it can be used to direct the Qi and Blood downward in a specific region or in the whole body. For example, Xing Ren (Armeniacae semen) can direct the Lung-Qi downward; Ban Xia (Pinelliae rhizoma) can direct the Stomach-Qi downward; Bing Lang (Arecae semen), Hou Po (Magnoliae cortex) and Da Huang (Rhei rhizoma) can direct the Qi in the intestines downward; Chuan Niu Xi (Cyathulae radix) can direct the Blood downward; San Leng (Sparganii rhizoma) and E Zhu (Curcumae rhizoma) can direct congealed Blood downward.

2.5 Saltiness

A salty substance possesses softening and reducing qualities. As it can soften hardness, it is often used to treat chronic inflammations as well as masses, such as goiter, scrofula, hepatocirrhosis and tumors. For instance, Xuan Shen (Scrophulariae radix) is often used for chronic pharyngitis; Mang Xiao (Natrii sulfas) is used to soften the feces and promote bowel movement; Zhe Bei Mu (Fritillariae thunbergii bulbus) and Hai Fu Shi (Pumex) are able to dissolve sticky sputum; Mu Li (Ostrea concha), Hai Zao (Sargassum) and Kun Bu (Eckloniae thallus) are used in treating goiter and scrofula. All of these can be used in formulas to treat tumors. A salty substance also has a downward-moving tendency in action and it can direct the Qi, Blood and Body Fluids downwards. For instance, Xue Jie (Daemonoropsis resina) and Su Mu (Sappan lignum) can disperse and reduce congealed Blood; Xuan Shen (Scrophulariae radix) can reduce Fire from the Heart and Kidney.

2.6 Blandness

A bland substance has the function of promoting urination and leaching out Dampness. For instance, Fu Ling (Poria), Yi Yi Ren (Coicis semen), Tong Cao (Tetrapanacis medulla) and Hua Shi (Talcum) can treat urinary retention and painful urinary dysfunction; they can also treat edema.

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